Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 8! Creativity at Work -There is Nothing to See Here...
Another week has gone by so quickly. Evening is coming sooner each night and finally we are putting on our gloves to bike and hats to wander. Cooler days are ahead. The continuous change and cyclical shifts are a wondrous process.
This week we continued our process of systematically deconstructing the classical western model of innovation and developing alternatives. But, before we get into that we are saying goodbye to some zombie concepts.
Last Friday Jason challenged all of us to actively let go of some concepts that profoundly skew our engagements with innovation and creativity into misleading directions:
“Mind Centered Creativity”
In our graveyard a field of new glorious weeds are growing out of the remains ideas, thinking and mind creativity have left behind:
Some of these we have already discussed in our articles and the newsletter: Enaction, Distributed Cognition, Know-how
Others are still to come.
Jason’s post last Friday got us thinking -- we should do a weekly post that focuses on developing practices.
Over the next four weeks our focus is shifting to explicating the conceptual underpinnings of an alternative approach to creativity and innovation.
We are excited to be transitioning from the critique of the past four weeks to construction of an alternative. We believe in going slowly to build up the tools, concepts and arguments for an alternative approach. The one big downside of the slow approach is that many of the big questions cannot be answered until later. If you are impatient you can dig into these concepts yourself, or take a look at our book. That said -- what we are working out over these ten weeks is not a regurgitation but an evolution in real time, in dialog with you.
This week we have been dancing with the great and challenging Creativity Paradox:
If creativity produces the radically new -- how can you recognize it if it has never been seen before?
We wrote an article on this on Monday which sparked some really great conversations during the week. Felipe Zamana responded in a really insightful and helpful manner and so we thought that we would use his responses as a jumping off point to get into this paradox and help us work through it (we have excerpted only parts of what Felipe wrote which is always a dangerous thing, it is worth reading these in full back on Linkedin. Thank you Felipe!):
“When talking about innovation, abstract thinking could be more easily understood if related to the realm of possibilities. When we think about possibilities, especially imagining the future, it is impossible to not think in an abstract form. This imaginary future is a creation based on our reality or in the known. We see that a lot in fiction (movies, series, books, etc).”
The creativity paradox rests upon an understanding that there are two distinct forms of creativity because there are two very distinct forms of change. And that this paradox only applies to one form of creativity.
Creativity is the process by which something new comes into being. The “new” is a difference that was not there before -- some form of new difference -- it could be anything: a concept, a tool, a virus.
Now a new difference can be thought of as a unique change -- an alteration that was not there before. In philosophy, these two forms of change are called: change-in-degree and change-in-kind.
From this we can see there are two forms of creativity: Disruptive and Developmental:
Beginning with, and focusing on abstract thinking as the primary tool of creativity only works effectively for developmental creativity. Here concepts can be built upon concepts and we can project a vision of what we want out ahead of us and then work to realize it.
“So, if we want to build a better future or at least a different one, we need first to be able to "see" it, that is, think about it in an abstract way. Only then we can create a plan to make it real.”
The question is: does this technique work equally well for Disruptive Forms of creativity?
It is only in the world of disruptive creativity -- the world of the radically new that the Creativity Paradox lives. It is for this world that we need to develop totally different approaches from the classical ones that begin and proceed primarily via abstract thinking. The classical tools for creativity are only suited for one world of creativity -- not both.
Felipe brings up a second important point -- where then is anything coming from?
“..the concept of novelty can be tricky. All the elements we have available to create are already known (at least by someone). The "creatio ex nihilo" (create from nothing) isn't really possible. So what we actually do is to find new ways to combine what already exists...”
1. Things have to be “known” by someone. This is precisely what we (and the Enactive Approach) are challenging. There are two key points to this:
You can think of this as happening in four steps:
2. You can get something from nothing (creatio ex nihilo). This is the great problem for all models of radical creativity to answer. The radically new must come from somewhere it cannot just spring out of thin air!
But, ironically, in some sense this is exactly what happens. Novelty is what is termed an emergent property. Emergence, defined very simply, means some that some “thing” arises from a set of interactions but is more than, and distinct from, those interactions. A great example is the behavior of a crowd at a stadium concert -- it has a life of its own that comes from the interactions of each individual -- but it is irreducible and unique -- it cannot be traced back in any direct fashion to individuals. Emergence is how radical novelty seemingly emerges from “nothing”.
This brings us back to the pragmatic crux of the paradox: if you are going to do something -- don’t you need to have a vision of what you are going to do? Or a Felipe puts it:
“you don't need to see the whole picture, but you need to create an image (or a vision) of what that future holds.”
When it comes to disruptive forms of novelty -- the answer is no: you neither need nor can have a vision of what you are going to do. So, how does it happen then?
This week we shared with you a video of a lecture by Gary Tomlison, a really useful thinker on this topic (we love his two books: A Million Years of Music, and Culture in the Course of Human Evolution). There is a wonderful moment in the lecture when Gary is discussing how some of the earliest stone tools were created. These tools are quite sophisticated, and difficult objects to make. The question is: were these pre-human hominids planning and then making?
Gary goes into this and we just transcribed this section of the video because it is so good:
“... those of us who ever tried to make one. Oh is it, boy, is it hard? … I don't even come close to Neanderthals, but in any case, this technology had already emerged about one and three quarter million years ago.
Homosapiens emerged between 300 and 200,000 years ago. This is a hugely ancient technology practiced by many different hominid species… In order to make one of these, you take, you take a cobble, you take a core and you take a hammer stone and you start chipping away at the cobble. ...When you chip away at the Cobble, as anybody who has tried this immediately realizes, ...you cannot take a cobble and say, I know how a hand axe is going to come out of this.
All you can do is chip away at the cobble and a flake is chipped off. And that flaking of the chip then forms an “sign” pointing you to the next gesture. And that form is a sign pointing you to the next gesture and a sign pointing you to the next gesture. At every moment, you are concatenating signs ...from one gesture to the next that help you.
Finally, if you're pretty good at it, you have something beautifully symmetrical, this is then a pretty complex array of signs … But notice that it's just kind of a Willy nilly sequence of signs
It is not, it is not a sequence of signs that is somehow prearranged, that is somehow hierarchical…”
There is much to unpack here, but for our current purposes -- the action and its outcome leads you to the next action a path emerges in doing. This is all at the level of tacit and embodied know-how. Only later does, and in this case much much later does it become anything like an abstract articulable concept.
Vera Lentini also had a insightful response to the video:
“The point about emergence certainly comes through. Especially at minute 25 where you pointed out with the chipping away at the stone example. ...I can see how it is good source material for [a] principle of innovation being something new emerging.
...I generally try to embrace a kind of generative creativity inventing my life and work. It’s nice to see that there are others who might also place traditional end in mind goal-setting techniques in their place, and to avoid conflating those exercises with creativity and innovation. 😊”
For us, both disruptive and developmental creativity are equally important (we appreciate and respect Felipe’s points of view and contributions). It is just that we cannot conflate the two, and more importantly we need to understand how disruptive creativity emerges differently and requires a wholly different approach.
Finally, we need to recognize that all novelty first emerges ontologically as disruptive and then develops via change-in-degree. For genuine novelty we need disruptive creativity -- it will allows us to participate in the emergence of something new that is not reducible and truly different from what we have and know.
One final example that we love: how the accidental drip played a significant role in disruptive creativity in the world of 20th century art. We are going to come back to this story in greater detail in a future article, for now we leave you with a few questions:
It is such a super fascinating set of questions! How the drip changed art was quite a complex story and we will come back to it (we promise).
Creativity is always a “making the path in walking” practice. The Antonio Machado, the great Spanish poet says it ever so beautifully:
“Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again. Wanderer, there is no road — Only wakes upon the sea.”
Well -- that's what we have for this week! A special thanks to Felipe and Vera for wrestling alongside us with these concepts.
Enjoy the season shifting and please, be in touch -- we remain inspired by all of you!
Till next week we stand alongside,
Iain and Jason
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
P.S.: Want to go deeper down the rabbit hole? Check out our book Innovating Emergent Futures